John Sutton Lutz and Barbara Neis , eds. Making and Moving Knowledge: Interdisciplinary and Community-based Research in a World on the Edge (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008).
“When thoughtful educators remind us that curriculum and teaching always end in an act of personal knowing, they also tacitly remind us that no matter how grounded our critical investigations are (and must be) in an equally critical understanding of the larger relations of dominance and subordination of this society and in the micropolitics of our institutions, it ultimately comes down to a recognition that we, as persons, participate in these relations.”
Michael Apple, Official Knowledge: Democratic Education in a Conservative Age
Michael Apple’s reflection clearly frames the act of knowing as one of personal relationships – among knowers, the object and subject of knowledge, and the circumstances surrounding the creation, valuation, and sharing of knowledge. As he and the contributors to Making and Moving Knowledge: Interdisciplinary and Community-based Research in a World on the Edge also understand, all of us in these relationships have a responsibility —no, an obligation — to examine critically and actively transform the unjust politics and practices of knowledge formation and application in educational and community environments.
Each semester I asked students in my courses to come up with a definition for “learning.” My sense is that the available literature does not provide a satisfactory definition for it, even though it is being used freely among “learning experts,” assessment professionals, development theorists, researchers, and education administrators to represent what happens when students learn. Most definitions either describe the effects of acquiring certain types of knowledge or of achieving various proxies for learning (i.e. amount of time on particular tasks, engagement in certain types of behaviors, satisfaction with certain types of experiences, etc). Most often the question that is addressed is, “What does learning look like when it has happened” instead of, “What is happening when learning is occurring?” Further, the question that always stumps my student co-learners and me is, “If we are unable to convey what is learned (verbally, in writing, through demonstration, or through other accessible expressions), is learning really occurring?” These queries are more than academic exercises. Our challenge is always to get clear about what learning is in order to think creatively about ways to stimulate certain types of learning among university students and to build ways of understanding the process and its various outcomes. Underlying our collective exploration is a belief I share in all my syllabi:
In this course it is assumed that each learner brings knowledge and unique perspective to the classroom mix. This knowledge and these perspectives are “unconditionally” respected. That is not to say that all knowledge and perspectives will be “unconditionally” embraced by all members of our learning community (class) as their own. In fact, many perspectives and interpretations of knowledge will be heavily debated. This relevant discourse is welcomed and encouraged. Important to the learning environment in this course is the notion that all members of the community are both teacher and learner. It is critical that members of the community, including the designated instructors and guests, actively accept responsibility for both teaching and learning with and from one another. Complete knowledge is not vested in one person or one source. Nor is knowledge static; it is dynamic and ever changing.
Our classroom process of collective and respectful exploration gets at the heart of the challenge presented in Making and Moving Knowledge. The fundamental questions that guide this book include:
- How do we know what we know?
- What is knowledge? Distinguish from “truths,” facts,” “information,” and “wisdom”
- Where does knowledge come from?
- Who does knowledge belong to?
- How is knowledge shared? Why, or for what purpose is knowledge shared?
- So what…that we know? What do we do when we know?
The two overarching premises upon which this edited text is based are:
- All significant (or wicked) social problems are systemic, dynamic, non-linear, and complex, and
- Approaches to these wicked problems have to be as, if not more, systemic, dynamic, non-linear, and complex as the conditions that inspired the problems in the first place.
The formation of knowledge about complex, contemporary social problems and ways to communicate that knowledge to non-experts makes our ability to address these problems effectively much more difficult. As the authors, John Sutton Lutz and Barbara Neis, suggest, “We do not know how to effectively move knowledge in a way that interconnects communities, governments, businesses, universities and individuals.” (p. 4). Lest we think that effectively moving knowledge to various interconnected entities will solve our complex issues, Lutz and Neis follow with an even more complicated concern: “Nor do we understand why, even in the face of clear and imminent danger, institutions and people with knowledge will not always act wisely.” (p. 4).
The context that frames this discussion is the transformative challenges that exist within the fishery enterprise in coastal communities and cultures in Eastern and Western Canada. The dynamics presented throughout the book exist in many other social contexts: neighbourhoods, cities, sectors, institutions, families, and many other social and personal relationships.
As a result of my nearly three decades as an educator in postsecondary education, my attention focuses on the dynamics between institutions of higher education and various social entities (neighbourhoods, governments, industry, faith communities, etc.). The fishery industry was, for me, both a specific dynamic and a metaphor for all knowledge creation and mobility challenges. Specifically, because of my commitment to, and strong beliefs in, the transforming powers of education, my concerns focus on the difficulty of moving complex, discipline-specific knowledge from the academy to agents of change in these various social sectors and institutions.
Lutz and Neis, and their contributors, weave masterfully from the general to the specific in their attempt to guide readers (and I suspect themselves as well) toward a deeper understanding of how best to fuse the knowers, the known, and socially meaningful deeds into something transformational for their communities, as well as in other spheres of life.
The book is organized into five parts with each of its 13 essays providing discussions about the specific conditions of coastal Canadian communities, as well as sophisticated analyses and critiques of the dynamics that influence knowledge creation, translation, movement, and usage.” The essays in Part One, “Getting Started”, explore concepts that are central to understanding subsequent essays in the text. Specifically, the essays distinguish between facts, information, data, knowledge, and wisdom. The second essay in Part One, “Knowledge, Uncertainly, and Wisdom,” examines the biases associated with acceptance of some forms of knowledge over other forms (i.e. scientific over indigenous knowledge, or basic research over applied research)and some of the inherent challenges of moving preferred forms of knowledge between academic institutions and communities.
Part Two, “Building and Moving Knowledge within Communities,” looks at schools and postsecondary institutions as communities unto themselves, with difficulties in moving knowledge within and between the various types of disciplines and institutions, and between the institutions and communities. The first essay in Part Two, “Ebb and Flow: Transmitting Environmental Knowledge in a Contemporary Aboriginal Community,” discusses the role that traditional and indigenous ecological knowledge plays in community adaptation and resilience. The essay “Students as Community Participants: Knowledge through Engagement in the Coastal Context” explores the dynamic relationships between knowledge, politics and power, where knowledge exchange is influenced by power and vice versa. This section and this essay, in particular, would be particularly important reading for scholars, students, and communities who partner in community-based learning and research activities. It present a clear, context-specific discussion about how decision making (in communities, classrooms, and public policy circles) is influenced by choice of knowledge that is valued and exchanged, as well as whose knowledge is valued and exchanged.
Part Three, “Knowledge Flows and Blockages: Fish Harvesters’ Knowledge, Science, and Management,” with its three essays continues the discussion about knowledge production and movement with specific focus on the changes in fishery knowledge systems. The chapters explore the relationships, challenges, and benefits between and among these specific knowledge-system changes and the broader society. The crux of the message in Part Three and, I would say, of the entire book is the observation by Lutz and Neis in their discussion of the importance of embracing multiple forms of knowledge:
Now, when so much is at stake, when problems are so large, we must “learn how to learn” across cultural and disciplinary boundaries and imposed hierarchies that have ranked disciplines and scholarly and folk knowledge. Real abstract and practical knowledge lives in communities of scientists and in workers and fishers, hunters and teachers, bureaucrats and youth, as well as schools, universities, corporations, and government.” (p.11)
The call of this section is for a deeper, more interdisciplinary approach to understanding and addressing the complex challenges of our time. Essay Five, “The Evolving Use of Knowledge Sources in Fisheries Assessment,” borrows from Visser’s concept of “transdisciplinarity” as a way of describing the type of learning, knowledge creation, and dissemination that needs to take place. According to Visser , transdisciplinarity, as oppose to multidisciplinarity or interdisciplinarity, “invites us to critically examine our own disciplinary assumptions and to reveal, rather than conceal, discontinuities; it aims at ‘boundary areas’ and at discovering ‘cutting-edge issues’ and new research questions that go beyond partner disciplines.”(P.27-28)
The other two essays — or chapters — in Part Three explore two critical research-to-practice issues that can have a disabling effect on efforts to address systemic community challenges. The issue raised in Chapter Six is that when researchers and communities embrace the notion that there are multiple knowledge systems, and a range of methodologies are used to acquire knowledge, how then do we use the various forms of knowledge and their sources in interactive and complex ways to better understand issues and construct complex ways of addressing the issues? Chapter Seven contributes to the challenge posed by the authors of the previous essays by raising the question of possible “data fouling,” that is, with such complex and often little understood or appreciated forms of knowledge, how does one know if the information acquired is flawed (inaccurate or distorted). Actual cases are presented to illustrate the depth of each of the issues raised in both essays.
The chapters that make up Part Four, “Knowledge Flows, Policy Development, and Practice,” further examine the processes and effects of excluding or devaluing knowledge — from and by youth — in this case, as well as discussing the potential factors that contribute to youth-generated knowledge being taken up by communities. The authors of Chapter Eight call for new strategies to understand the sources of youth knowledge and ways in which communities can learn from and with youth. Chapter Nine presents four case studies of how knowledge is taken up by communities that have undergone significant systemic change. Each case is viewed within the context of knowledge production, the present social dynamics, and potential policy outcomes for communities situated in Newfoundland and Labrador. The final chapter in Part Four focuses on the often confusing and conflicting notions of “values” and “knowledge,” where in some cases values are paramount and knowledge is shaped to fit the values. In other cases knowledge, particularly traditional knowledge runs into conflict with the values of some local people who don’t fully understand or appreciate traditional ways of knowing.
Part Five, the final section of the book, “Moving Knowledge across Disciplines and between University and Community,” sums up the challenges in the formation and movement of knowledge within higher education institutions, across academic disciplines, and among and between higher education institutions and communities. Among the challenges covered in the concluding chapter are the persistence of disciplinary silos in higher education, conflicting agendas between academic and government entities, and our collective inabilities to communicate in ways that are accessible to those outside our disciplines or immediate life circumstances.
In a few tightly focused essays, Lutz and Neis deliver a primer on the issues, challenges, and opportunities for the respectful and just formation, dissemination and application of knowledge among and between distinct cultures and collections of people. Readers will gather knowledge and appreciation for the complex challenges of communities and supporters who work to address issues in East and West Coast environments that depend on fishery to sustain life and culture. Equally illuminating is the knowledge gathered by readers from the authors’ intricate analyses of factors that impede and enhance the making and movement of knowledge that is applicable in every corner of life. This book is important, and should be required reading for all who want to understand and address complex issues in partnerships. Certainly for me and the co-learners in my courses, the book will serve as a gateway to understanding more about learning.
Tony Chambers is Assistant Professor in Theory and Policy Studies and Director of the Centre for the Study of Students in Postsecondary Education at OISE/University of Toronto.
Apple, M.W. (1993). Official Knowledge: Democratic Education in a Conservative Age. New York, NY: Routledge Press.
Lutz, J.S. & Neis, B. (Eds.)(2008). Making and Moving Knowledge: Interdisciplinary and Community-based Research in a World on the Edge . Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Visser, L.E. (2004). Reflections on Transdisciplinarity, Integrated Coastal Development, and Governance. In Challenging Coasts: Transdisciplinary Excursions into Integrated Coastal Zone Development, Visser, L.E.(ed), pp.12-23. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.